Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prop 2 1/2 has become the gate keeper and should stay: confessions of a convert

As editorial director of WCVB-TV, Channel 5, I was an ardent opponent of Prop 2½. I thought it arbitrary to cap a city’s or town’s property tax levy to 2½ percent of the previous levy, unnecessarily tying the hands of local officials trying to cope with changing financial circumstances. Much of that is still true, but increasingly I have come to believe that, without 2½ there would be substantially less accountability to local taxpayers, essential in good times and bad.

Local officials seeking to override the 2½ cap have to go to the voters for approval to override. And it is those referenda that provide accountability. Communicating with transparency is the sine qua non for building that trust in local government without which an override is next to impossible.

The MA House this week killed a plan offered by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Murphy allowing communities a way to circumvent 2½. Essentially the deal was to let cities and towns convert their overlay accounts (monies set aside for tax abatements, now factored into their annual budgets) into free cash (up to five percent of their total budget), to be used however they wish. It’s far easier to understand debt exclusion overrides than this latest ploy, which would not even require voter approval.

(Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation may be one of the only people in the Commonwealth to understand completely how this would be achieved, and she will be writing on this for the Salem News later this week. )

And that’s my point. This recent Ways and Means strategy gives property taxpayers a sense that someone’s trying to put something over on them. It is anything but transparent in the process and, if passed, would reduce accountability by local officials.

How important is transparency? Take the case of Newton, for example. In 2002, voters felt good about the city administration and passed an $11.5 million override referendum to support city and school services. But, by 2008, having lost faith in Mayor David Cohen and angry about a nearly $200 million new high school (dubbed a Taj Mahal by Boston Globe editorial writers), voters rejected a $12 million override for city and school services. They didn’t believe that City Hall was doing everything humanly possible to trim expenditures, and they weren’t going to pay more money without that confidence.

Today, like many cities, Newton faces a structural deficit exacerbated by employee health and pension costs. New Mayor Setti Warren pledged not to ask for an override his first year in office, but a referendum may be unavoidable next year. He held informational meetings in all eight wards prior to filing the FY ’11 budget. He seems to understand that constant contact and relentless education to engage taxpayers in the decision-making process must be part of the equation.

Cities and towns are not irredeemably opposed to override referenda. A look at the MA Revenue Department data base shows that maybe half of them succeed, though the MA Municipal Association says the recession has understandably slowed that process. In good times and in recession, however, taxpayers need to know that their tax dollars are being spent responsibly, that every conceivable effort is being made to prune budgets, and that, if an override referendum is called, it is absolutely a last resort.

Good for House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and Governor Deval Patrick for taking a stand against the Murphy move to circumvent the Prop 2½ trickery.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


These are good times for Charlie Baker, despite the poll reported in the Boston Herald that he’s in a virtual dead heat with independent challenger Tim Cahill in the three-way primary race to unseat Governor Patrick. Baker himself points out that even Christy Mihos had 22 percent at this stage of his 2006 gubernatorial race as an independent but, with no party backing him, Mihos limped in with under seven percent in the general election. But that’s not why Charlie’s on a roll.

Charlie Baker is doing well because he’s doing better. He seems to have hit his stride in his presentation, calling for a “smarter, better, more creative way of running the government.” Who wouldn’t want that? He attacks Governor Patrick indirectly, saying “There’s not a lot of imagination around” for problem-solving. And, he says, we have to do more than just “managing quarter to quarter.”

The former Secretary of Human Services and later of Administration and Finance under Governor Bill Weld takes credit (always using “we,” of course, rather than “I”) for accomplishments in education (charter schools and foundation grants), human services facility consolidation, criminal justice reform, balancing the budget (required by state Constitution) and cutting taxes. Luckily for him, the 1990’s economy was generally good enough to be able to cut unemployment in half at the same time. Thanks to the Great Recession, Deval Patrick has had to cut $9 billion from successive budgets and raise taxes in order to meet that requirement for a balanced budget.

Baker’s main focus is on jobs and economic development, including the problem of companies starting here but expanding elsewhere. “I know the drill and can bring people together to get the job done,” he asserts.

It’s what Baker projects as much as the themes he articulates that has people at house parties nodding affirmatively as he speaks. His presence has become more forceful; his articulation, more clearcut. He projects enthusiasm and confidence and experience.

He has long insisted 5000 jobs can but cut from state government. Pushed to explain where, he says “pretty much everywhere.” He notes that several agencies are performing the same functions, that there are 120 operating agencies, 60 authorities and six development entities, offering too much fragmentation and distribution of responsibility. One remembers, of course, what happened when Patrick tried to consolidate development agencies and “interested parties” sprang into action to stop him. But Baker scores points when he says that “we shouldn’t be having to cut day habilitation and services for developmental disabilities and homeless vets” because we haven’t been able to save money through bureaucratic consolidation.

He also speaks with great precision about pension reform, acknowledging that “they” (read, the Patrick administration) took the first step last year but detailing further necessary changes.

Baker supports the state health law for making care more available but faults the lack of attention to primary care and the fallout from defensive medicine due to the malpractice environment.

The bottom line is this: Democrats should understand that Charlie Baker is no Tea Party Republican, notwithstanding his hard right rhetoric at the state's GOP convention, designed to push Christy Mihos out of the race. Nor is Baker a pushover when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of independents, the same kind of independents who voted for Bill Weld and (the first) Mitt Romney.

A general election choice between Baker and Patrick could have been a campaign of subtlety and nuance. But with Tim Cahill in as an independent, running well now and to the right of Baker, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Charlie Baker campaigning today will be the same Charlie Baker asking for our votes in November.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

State’s MASS SAVE energy rebate program a public relations disaster

It was a great idea, but its flawed execution can’t help being a black eye for the Patrick administration. The idea was to do for appliances what the cash-for-clunkers program did for cars. Massachusetts had over $6 million to give out in rebates for energy-inefficient washers, refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers. The rebates ranged from $50 to $250, depending on the appliance. Count me in! Too bad the state wasn’t up to the task.

My clothes washer needed replacing. I dutifully followed all the state’s instructions. I went to my appliance store, and decided which model suited our needs. Got the number. Went on Masssave.com to verify that the washing machine was eligible for a $175 rebate. That’s no small change.

The next step is where it became trouble. The process required people to go online to register, but not before 10 AM on April 22, Earth Day. I was then to take the rebate confirmation number to my appliance store, buy the washing machine, and by June have sent in the proof of purchase and delivery, along with verification that the old washing machine had been removed. A phone number provided was an alternative to the online registration.

Media reports had warned there’d be a rush this morning. I set my kitchen timer, and the countdown began. At 9:59:59 I went online. The message was Access is denied. You do not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials that you supplied. I tried again and again. Same message.

I started dialing the number. Again and again and again. Busy, busy, busy. Every once in a while there would be no busy signal, and I’d think I was about to get through, but the line had just gone dead. I was simultaneously trying to work the web site, also to no avail.

Thirty-five minutes later, I did what any logical journalist would do; I emailed Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, charged with overseeing the program to alert him to the melt-down. More dialing, more busy signals, more online rejection. Followed up with a telephone call to Ian Bowles' office; he was out. Told his secretary their operation had crashed if, in fact, it was ever up. She indicated they were working on the problems.

One hour later, the web site message had changed (been upgraded?) to “service unavailable.” Now at least it wasn’t a question of my lack of permission or credentials. That barely made me feel better. An hour and a half, the message was “The resource you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.”

Boston.com quoted Energy Department spokeswoman Lisa Capone. "Our phone lines are jammed from the call volume. The web site is down. We are advising people to keep trying -- the problem will be resolved -- and thanking them for their patience in the meantime." Small consolation.

My appliance dealer, Jim Tiseo of Poirier, pictured here, had been in at 7 a.m. to get ready. He knew it was going to be a busy day. However, he also “knew it could be a disaster,” and it was. He was concerned that the appliance dealers would get blamed, and, he said, that’s exactly how things were turning out.

An hour and ¾ into the process, I learned from boston.com that the Department of Energy Website was advising people to try downloading the form at https://www.maswap1.com. Again, the discouraging messaging that "Service is unavailable."

Just about two hours into the drill, using the new URL, I hit pay-dirt. The non-advertised website notes that, of the nearly $6 million allocated to the program, only $1.5 million remained. All I wanted was $175 of it. Within minutes of finally getting the form, the Boston Globe reported, the rebate pool was drained.

With rebates approved on a first-come, first-served basis, some people inevitably would come up empty-handed, but if operated as advertised it would at least have been fair. The messed up process clearly tilted the playing field against those who went on the site in a timely way, but couldn’t spend the hours it took to download the form and confirmation number. This wasn’t fair and doubtless gave many thwarted individuals yet another reason to be cynical about state government.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What Hillary Clinton Didn't Say

Nation building is at the core of the U.S. State Department mission. George Bush denied it, ran against it and, after 9/11, got drawn into it. Barack Obama is staking his reputation on it, even if he calls it something else. But will it sell with the American people?

The premise is important – the idea that, if troubled nations abide by the rule of law and have dynamic economies, they can ameliorate the conditions that terrorists can exploit to advance their causes. Everywhere you turn, even where military action is on-going, the success of United States outcomes depends on how we help others develop their governance and human infrastructure.

This was the theme again and again at the annual State Department briefing held Monday in Washington with a group of editorialists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

A major challenge for the State Department is to build support at home for this mission. Even though diplomacy and foreign aid have never been a huge part of the federal budget, it has always been a tough sell. One part of selling the strategy has been to take it outside the beltway, which is why for years high-level diplomats have held such annual briefings for editorial writers from across the country.

Right now, the military surge is on in Afghanistan, but the key to the future of this beleaguered nation is the ability to develop a legal (non-drug-dependent) economy. Hence, according to Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley, we have 1000 civilian experts complementing the military in Afghanistan. At the end of 2011, when the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is to be complete, the plan is to have transitioned from Defense Department dominance to institution building. But will federal budget priorities reflect that shift?

This strategy is ongoing in multiple countries. For example, the State Department has  an “energy czar” trying to help Pakistan develop its energy infrastructure. The U.S. is involved in a non-poppy-based agricultural program outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. It will invest in developing governance in the Southern part of Sudan when, as expected, the region secedes from Sudan by referendum next January. In Iraq, by 2013,  the United States' decade-long, combined military and non-military costs will reach a staggering $2 trillion. And this is only part of the picture!

In Africa, the U.S. is providing $7 billion to promote economic development, enhance public health and education, ameliorate climate change, mitigate internal disputes and counter trans-national threats. It trains troops in peace-keeping operations,  fights AIDS and tuberculosis, and hopes that all of this strengthens the impulse to the rule of law and democracy as that continent holds 27 elections in the next two years.

In contrast to the Bush administration’s public posture, “We’re listening more,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto. “Dialogue is key to achieving our diplomatic goals.”

Over the past few months, Ambassador Scot Marciel, responsible for East Asia and Pacific affairs, has even been trying dialogue with Burma, an “international pariah” and “impervious to outside influence.” He also speaks of the U.S. role in helping deal with terrorism in Indonesia. “The hard work of diplomacy is working with countries we don’t agree with,” he said.

Farah Pandith, a special representative to Muslim communities, is engaged in dialogue with mostly young people. She works as a facilitator, connecting successful young entrepreneurs who happen to be Muslim, and linking young Muslim women dealing with the cultural challenge of being both modern and religious in 2010. “You don’t build trust overnight,” she says, “but you must invest in relationship building with the next generation.”

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, “we’re not trying to win in a military sense. This isn't like 1945, or even (the) Dayton” Peace Accords, said Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, leading a thoughtful and informative discussion both on and off the record. “The goal is to get the government back on its feet, with the help of the world.”

Help of the world indeed. The global community absolutely needs to engage around these issues. The scope of what the United States is trying to achieve is so enormous that one desperately seeks reassurance that these diplomatic initiatives are sustainable. Development and diplomacy do inform each other, and such reengagement can be seen in our national interest.

But is the wherewithal in our national pocketbook? Can the President persuade the American people, - struggling to rebuild our own economy, our crumbling infrastructure, cut the national deficit and build a new health care system – that this international endeavor is worth the cost? It's not off to a good start.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the point person to help Obama make the case for these initiatives in the FY2011 federal budget. Convincing editorial writers from around the country should matter.

But, in contrast to her predecessors who for years have shown up annually to field questions and advance their agendas, Madame Secretary stiffed the National Conference of Editorial Writers (including this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dallas Morning News) without explanation, failing for the second time to show up as scheduled. In doing so, she turned her back on an important opportunity to get the word out about what United States diplomacy is trying to achieve and what’s at stake.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Casino gambling: providing informed consent

Reasonable doubts remain about the studies touting the benefits of casino gambling to Massachusetts, especially if today’s Boston Globe is correct that the legislature only asked for an analysis of benefits and not a cost-benefits analysis.

Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and former Governor Mike Dukakis have raised significant warnings about the economic payoff, citing negative economic experiences in states that are home to casinos or racinos.

But let’s for the sake of argument posit that Speaker Robert DeLeo’s numbers hold, that casino gambling would have a positive net impact on jobs and revenues in the Commonwealth. Even then, shouldn’t we still get more data on how the system will work? Newton Representative Ruth Balser has filed an amendment to the casino gambling bill that has intriguing possibilities.

Balser, as reported today on WBUR radio, would require that every slot machine be posted with a notice to gamblers about the odds of winning. Think an explanation on every gambling machine explaining the odds and algorithms of the machine would spoil the fun? Not much, I suspect.

Consider the other areas in which people get warnings about products and services that are supposed to enable them to make decisions in an informed way before embarking on an activity. Every purchase of prescription medicine these days comes with warnings of possible side effects: diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, hyperactivity, hallucinations, depression, death. Manufacturers of everything from hair dryers to automobiles warn us of the pitfalls of using their products. Do we respond to every such warnings by not taking the pills or buying the appliances? Not so much! But sometimes the warnings do give pause, and at least, theoretically, give us potentially useful information by which to make our decisions.

But why warn about slots and not blackjack tables or roulette? According to an op-ed piece by Balser in the Newton TAB, slots are the biggest rip-off of all, and an estimated 80 percent of the revenue in gambling comes from slots. Testimony before Balser’s committee by MIT sociologist Dr. Natasha Schull indicated that, “Every feature of gambling machines — mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics — is geared to increase ‘time on device’ and encourage gamblers to ‘play to extinction,’ as the industry jargon goes (in other words, until their funds are depleted.)”

Balser proposes other regulatory tools in Amendment 99 to H.4591. One, a proposal to limit “per patron” gambling losses to $500 a day seems uncomfortably too “Big Brother” and evokes the bizarre image of means testing gambling patrons as the next reductio ad absurdum. But posting the odds seems eminently reasonable.

We all want to choose our own pleasures and vices and not have the government dictate how we have fun. But, if in fact, gambling addiction can be linked to crime, bankruptcy, domestic violence and suicide (not unlike heroin addiction), and have consequences that go beyond the individuals, isn’t there a point at which private pleasures become public health menaces? This doesn’t necessarily argue for banning slots altogether but at least supports the concept of posting the information for gamblers on the odds of their winning.

Clearly, the Surgeon General ‘s warning labels on cigarettes that smoking may be bad for your health didn’t drive the likes of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds out of business, but it was a first step in holding both the companies and the users of their products responsible for the outcomes.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Stevens and Hatch: Two events mark the passing of civility

It’s not just the bow ties they had in common; it’s the air of civility. Yesterday U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced that he will retire from the nation’s highest bench. Within the same 24-hour period, former Massachusetts House Minority Leader Frank Hatch passed away. Both left an imprint on the institutions with which they were associated, and both had a style that is sorely missed today in the realm of public affairs.

I covered Frank Hatch at the State House in the 1970’s. He was all about reasoned discourse and finding a consensus on issues. As then-House Speaker David Bartley said of his Republican counterpart in Gloria Negri's column in today’s Boston Globe, Hatch was all about “integrity, decency and dignity.” He represented a noble tradition of Republicanism and thought in the Commonwealth, conservative on fiscal matters, liberal on social issues, and marked by personal grace. He was enlightened and visionary on environmental issues and bespoke a political environment where people could still disagree without being disagreeable.

Justice Stevens was a Republican in the same tradition. Stevens, who will retire after this term, is always hailed as the most liberal of justices, but, as Adam Liptak points out in today’s New York Times, it was the court that moved to the right rather than Stevens moving to the left. Any number of cases will be cited in coming days to illustrate his distinguished career and the superb quality of his writing. The quote that sticks with me was his statement after the outcome of the Bush-Gore presidential campaign in 2000, when he said, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

I see Justice Stevens as “an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” His brilliance and fair-mindedness will be missed. Following President Gerald Ford’s nomination of Stevens, confirmation took less than three weeks. Would anyone bet on that happening when President Obama makes known his choice to succeed Stevens?

The Commonwealth and the nation are poorer for the death of Hatch and the stepping down of Stevens, just as we are poorer for the dominance of highly ideological leaders on both the right and left wings. Sadly today a pragmatic center is too often ignored or viewed as betrayal, and politics succeeds largely by throwing red meat to the parties’ bases.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Give Tim Cahill the Paul Tsongas Pander Bear Award

Back in the 1992 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Lowell) gave the first-ever “pander bear” award to then-candidate Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas. The symbolism has been used by both parties to attack candidates who bend over backwards to ingratiate themselves with certain people or groups of people, irrespective of the merits of the issue. What they are pledging to the voters may be at odds with what is possible or, worse, contradict what they themselves believe. Today’s Pander Bear Award goes to State Treasurer Tim Cahill, who seems willing to say anything and do anything to pander to people’s frustration with government.
Cahill now panders to Obamacare opponents in charging that the Mass health reform law is bankrupting the Commonwealth. As Frank Phillips astutely pointed out in the Boston Globe, when Cahill went to the bond market just last month to sell more than half a billion in bonds, he made no such assertion that the near universal health law had thrust the state to the edge of fiscal ruin. Did Cahill deliberately mislead would-be investors or did he twist 180 degrees merely to hypocritically hustle the anti-government spending crowd that put Scott Brown in office?

Now we learn that Cahill was the sole member of the Municipal Finance Oversight Board to oppose state backing of struggling Lawrence’s ability to float $35 million in bonds. The state isn’t giving the money outright to Lawrence. If Lawrence defaulted on its borrowing, the state would pay and recoup the money from Lawrence’s local aid allocation. It’s a time out to give the beleaguered city a chance to get its act together, while being monitored.

Without the ability to borrow, as the Boston Herald pointed out today, Lawrence could go bankrupt this spring.  What’s really bankrupt is Cahill’s intellectual honesty. This is going to be a long campaign. We have real issues that deserve serious discussion and thoughtful solutions. We need to educate voters to the hard choices ahead, not cynically pander to their anger and frustration.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barney: Speaking Frankly on financial services reform and Pentagon budgets

With the passage of health insurance reform behind us, look for the President to sign financial services reform by Memorial Day, give or take. That, according to Congressman Barney Frank at this morning’s Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “The public is overwhelmingly in favor of financial services reform, so the banks can’t expect too many Tea Party rallies in their behalf,” he quipped.

The powerful chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services calls the reform legislation “market-oriented.” He prefers incentivizing behavior, rather than heavy-handed regulation. The bill requires greater risk retention in the banking business, based on the product being sold. A 30-year fixed rate mortgage, for example, would require a lower rate of risk retention by the bank than some other kind of product. “If I’m working to be paid back,” he said, “I’m more concerned than if I’ve sold off the loan to someone else.”

Other changes would protect taxpayers by altering how the government would respond if an institution is going to go belly up. “We’re going to have death panels, but in failing banks, not in health care,” he said. He did point out that, of the $244 billion in federal dollars that went to prop up banks, $186 billion has already been paid back and the government has made several billions off the deal.

After the breakfast, he acknowledged that, while the bill would create transparency in the derivatives market, he’d have preferred stronger measures to regulate that product. He's right about that.  Credit default swaps and other derivatives were supposed to spread risk around but ended up spreading toxicity.  Too bad the Congress wimped out on derivatives!  (See Mary Schapiro's more detailed analysis in The Washington Post or an equally cogent piece in the Huffington Post.)

Frank is funny, smart, neatness-challenged and practical, a phenomenally effective Congressman, able to work across the aisle to get things done. Right now, for example, he is working with Republican Ron Paul and with the CATO Institute on reducing the Defense Department budget.

“Once we have committed American military to foreign action, we must do everything we can to support them,” he said. “But I object to the Pentagon being the reserve military for the world.” Frank doesn’t think American military need to be in Europe any longer. Europe can defend itself. If Germany feels threatened, it can defend itself. He doesn’t think Iran is going to attack Romania. Elsewhere, he says, we don’t need 3000 Marines in Okinawa.

“We shouldn’t equate the (size of) Pentagon budget with national security,” he admonished.

An alumnus of Boston City Hall under then-Mayor Kevin White, a former state legislator representing Beacon Hill, Back Bay and the South End, and now, for 30 years, a congressman, representing an ever changing district, Barney Frank turned 70 yesterday. I, for one, am glad he is there.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.